Chocolate: still tainted by child labour

Jan 17, 2021

What is your New Year resolution? To get fitter and eat less sugar, including chocolate? There’s plenty of other reasons to re-think our love affair with chocolate.

It will come as a surprise to many that hazardous child labour persists in the mainstream production of cocoa.

For 20 years global brands that produce chocolate have promised to tackle what has been the biggest single human rights issue in the sector. A recent report from the University of Chicago shows they have a long way to go.

In 2001, popular brands including brands Nestlé, Mars and Hershey and cocoa industry representatives adopted the voluntary Harkin Engel Protocol and then the Framework of Action to Support Implementation of the protocol, signed with the governments of Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire where two-thirds of the world’s cocoa comes from.

Not only would child labour be eliminated but the sector would become 100% certified.

Disturbingly, hazardous child labour has increased and remains widespread in supply chains. Today there are more children, as young as five, working in the sector compared to 2008-09.

There are an estimated 3.83 million minors under 17 in hazardous cocoa production in West Africa. That number represents a 14% increase in the decade to 2018-19.

More children than ever before are exposed to toxic agrochemicals used to control weeds where the cocoa plants grow. This is probably caused by industry pressure to increase productivity, despite many of the chemicals banned in the European Union.

The Chicago University study, commissioned by the US Department of Labor, urges an immediate review of pesticide use to reduce exposure to workers of all ages.

The vast majority of minors working in cocoa are also still handling sharp tools such as machetes, carrying heavy loads, burning fields and using other herbicides without protective gear.

The 300-page report provides shocking details of the injuries children aged 5-17 suffer. They include wounds and cuts (most common), back pain, fatigue, broken bones and burns. Children told researchers they prefer working in any other area of agriculture over cocoa because they were not as physically intensive and dangerous.

There is some good news. The number of hours worked per child in historically high-producing farms has gone down and more children in cocoa-growing regions are today going to school thanks to all but two companies adopting a Child Labour Monitoring and Remediation System.

But the gains made have been undermined by the increased prevalence of child labour and hazardous child labour rates in medium and low cocoa producing regions.

The problems persist but are largely invisible because close to 90% of world cocoa comes from small-scale, family-run farms. Cocoa farmers, largely illiterate, are hidden from view as they live in remote rural areas where there is only basic infrastructure and opportunities. This fact contributes to poor traceability in the supply chain.

All of this sits in the context of an industry enjoying massive profits. Globally, we eat 700 million tonnes of chocolate a year. Australia is a growing market among traditional high-income countries. The countries producing cocoa, where it all starts, are not the ones consuming it.

The big six producers are Mondelez, Nestle, Mars, Ferrero, Hershey and Lindt. US multinational agribusiness Cargill collects much of the cocoa to supply to them. They account for most of the $100 billion profits made each year.

The root cause of child labour is, of course, extreme poverty. COVID-19 is likely to make things worse as the global economy goes into freefall and the price of cocoa drops.

Cocoa farmers currently earn less than A$2 a day. They have weak connections to the market and little bargaining power to influence farm-gate pricing. Not even current floor prices and premiums offered by certifiers get farmers close to affording basic needs.

Two decades ago, chocolate makers agreed to scale up farmers’ pay to an increase of 6% but still have no uniform approach to get there.

By earning just 3 per cent more, farmers could afford to hire adults to do the hazardous work such as handling chemicals and machetes.

The non-binding Cocoa Protocol did break ground by bringing state and not-for-profit actors together with an emphasis on business taking responsibility for child labour and trafficking on the farms from which they source.

But there’s too little accountability. Existing child labour monitoring and remediation systems are not responsive enough. They lack teeth.

A new binding regulatory agreement with penalties is needed that makes prevention mandatory.

It’s something Big Chocolate appears finally open to as the 20-year protocol is due to expire early next year.

In response to survey questions prepared by the human rights and environment not-for-profit sector, 75 per cent of responding companies backed mandatory due diligence for the industry as is being introduced by the European Union and discussed in the US.

For an industry that has insisted it can self-regulate, this represents a major shift; the first public acknowledgement that voluntary commitments are not enough to deliver its child labour guarantee.

Parties will need to agree on an incentive structure that includes a system of enforceable sanctions. Ultimately this is a moral question to take collective and rational action with consistent interventions and investments for sustained change. It’s a change consumers want.

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